“Do you think I can wear this?” A surefire way to declutter your closet and pick versatile t-shirt designs
Graphic t-shirts are a staple of everyone’s wardrobe. They are light, they are a great medium to express ourselves, and they are often keepsakes of experiences of which we have fond memories. T-shirts can be a pretty personal thing, and that’s also the reason why it is easy to get a little self-conscious about wearing them from time to time. Even as successful adults, we may start to wonder “Will people find me too immature if I wear this?” or “Would this look like I’m seeking too much attention?”. Even if you are typically quite confident in picking the right style for the right occasion, your dressers and closets might contain a large number of t-shirts that you have not worn in in a long time. Maybe they were a gift, maybe they will work again for an occasion sometime in the future, or maybe it is simply too much effort to even think about why they are still here! If people only knew how easy it is to take a quick peek at our conscious and subconscious style choices, and unveil the unspoken rules we use to make and defer wardrobe decisions! We could streamline our closets, and make room for longer lasting, more versatile, and cooler looking clothes before we even get breakfast. So, let’s get started - shall we?
In his blog post The Grown Man’s Guide to Wearing Graphic T-Shirts, the personal stylist Peter Nguyen provides great examples of shirt designs ranging from logo to abstract tees, and he establishes an instructive grading scheme ranging from most casual to least casual. Peter also recommends to perform a complete t-shirt “reboot” by first replacing all of your current graphic tees with solid colored ones, and then gradually introducing graphics that pass the “could this hang in a museum” rule of thumb.
If you are a curator of fine art in a museum, your answer to this question will be very reliable. For the rest of us, results may vary. So, let’s look at the differences between design styles and consider situations in which they may work, and where they simply do not. I’ve got some good news, though! There is probably no need to burn your whole t-shirt collection in the nearest trash can, while wiping away the tears in your eyes, but you may still decide to declutter a little bit after reading this.
Situations matter a great deal to whether the design of a graphic t-shirts works or not. If we were to attend the summer BBQ by our company, someone may strongly encourage us to wear a t-shirt with the company’s logo on it. Let’s assume the logo is great, the company is great, and everything else is just fantastic, but the variety of occasions to which we may choose to wear this t-shirt may be limited. This section will explain the reason behind this phenomenon, but more importantly, it will introduce the Design Versatility Scale. This scale gauges whether a particular design is suitable in a narrower or in a wider context. That means, how often will the look of the t-shirt design match the occasion, how much use are we really going to get out of the t-shirt, and consequently, how often are we likely to wear it.
The figure below provides just one example for each of the different design types. It also ranks the designs in terms of their versatility, and we will get into the reasons behind this ranking in a second.
Figure 1 - T-Shirt Design Versatility Scale by Timbre & Style
As you are looking over the different design examples in the figure above, please keep in mind that any single picture of a graphic t-shirt will actually be far too detailed and too specific to establish general categorization criteria. The design examples in this figure are only supposed to give you a very rough idea of what each design class represents. Pictures are good, but understanding what distinguishes the different design types is more important, and that’s what we are going to focus on next.
Any design that consist of a combination of words or an illustration that we have seen a lot in real-life or online can feel old. Maybe surprisingly, t-shirts with big brand logos fall into this category, too. Logos need to be distinctive, but also easily recognizable. Brands typically spend tremendous advertising efforts on “implanting” the look of their logo into our brains, so that we can easily associate any positive experiences from the past involving this brand with all current and future products. By the time this has been successfully accomplished, however, we may have seen the logo literally a million times, and no matter how ingenious its designer, we are probably rather tired of seeing it by now. For this reason, discovering it by itself on yet another item simply feels boring.
Obvious designs may be creative and new to some extent, but ultimately, they get old quickly. Imagine hearing the best joke or coming across the most profound quote you have ever heard. Now, imagine hearing it over, and over, and over again. That’s basically what happens when you print a funny slogan, a pun, or an initially inspirational quote on a t-shirt. Anything that your brain recognizes effortlessly will stop drawing you in, and it will lose its appeal quickly, even if it was amazing at first. Whether it’s a joke, a quote, a song, or an illustration - repeated exposure to it can get painful, because our brains are drawn to novelty.
Special occasion designs
It is quite obvious that special occasion designs were made for a particular event or an activity. Whether it’s the 5k race in our town, our friend’s bachelor or bachelorette party, our grandpa’s 90th birthday, or the pie eating contest we won after a month-long fast, we all know that a t-shirt made for one occasion will most likely look strange in the context of a different occasion. This really is common sense, but common sense may not be common practice, especially in a pinch. As laundry day approaches, you might find yourself strangely drawn towards certain special occasion designs, and you may be tempted to make questionable style choices. If you are asking yourself why this might be, try to imagine the design stripped of anything that binds it to the time and place it was made for. If it still makes sense, you may have just stumbled upon a great design idea, but please! Do your laundry!
Most pop or rock band merchandise falls into this category. You may be in the “in-group”, because you listen to the music of the band, or you are into the lifestyle that is associated with the group. There is typically something weird, unique, or distinctive about the design to identify the members of the in-group. Think of skulls, sign-of-the-horns, crosses, or similar iconography on the t-shirts of heavy metal bands, for example. To come across as a genuine person, wear merchandise associated with a group you actually listen to, or at least care for in some way. Graphic t-shirts with this type of design are awesome in the context of events such as concerts, or when like-minded people hang out together, but in other settings, these designs can be a little bit alienating: they don’t make it easier for outsiders to approach or communicate with you, and they may make it just it a little bit harder for people to feel like they belong to the same group, especially in settings in which different individuals have different interest, different lifestyles, or they simply like to listen to different styles of music.
I was going to use the word artsy, but I know some people who would rather see the font Comic Sans on their wedding invitation than hear anything related to their work called artsy. “Artistic” (in quotation marks!) designs shoot for the appearance of art, but they are often just random lines and shapes. There is no weirdness or edginess that may be found in an “in-group” design, which makes these designs more versatile. They can be useful when solid colors do not cut it for an outfit, and the person wearing it is also not comfortable with any other type of graphics. One caveat is that “artistic” designs can come across as generic looking. If you are thinking right now that you have to be a famous painter or an art critic to be able to distinguish artsy / “artistic” designs from more interesting looking ones, fear not: You may not be a cook or restaurant critic either, but you would probably not confuse a super spicy dish for steamed tofu.
To recognize what is depicted in non-obvious illustrations, you have to look closely, or even use your imagination. The illustration may or may not be abstract art, but it may require you to connect the dots, literally or figuratively. As with in-group designs, choosing illustrations of artifacts to which you have some sort of affinity comes across as more genuine and interesting than choosing illustrations of completely random things. Now, there are two fundamental differences to “in-group” designs and “artistic” designs. First, non-obvious illustrations are typically more general than in-group designs, i.e. the topic of the illustrations is broader than what a single group or music band represents. Secondly, there may not be a “strength in numbers” type of effect, and you may not be able hide behind “well, it’s cool to like a certain group because everyone likes them”. You actually have to be comfortable enough with yourself and your unique interests. Pretty damn scary to be so … exposed and left to your own devices, isn’t it? But it is exactly your passion and love of scary, slightly dangerous situations that make you so damn sexy. High risk, super high reward my friend. I can feel your passion as you are reading this!
Non-objective designs are as versatile as it gets. Abstract art may simply be a “departure from reality”, whereas non-objective art is not even concerned with the real world. Our minds, however, want to associate this type of art with something we have seen before. That’s why non-objective designs leave much room for interpretation, and there is hardly a situation where they appear out of place. Let’s make sure, though, that we do not fall in the “could this be in a museum?” trap, because if we only ask this question, the chosen design may end up looking too “special occasion” as seen in the in the picture below.
Figure 2 - Salvador Dali's Lobster phone DYI
To be on the safe side, let’s make sure we apply this straight-forward checklist to non-objective art:
- The design is not linked to a specific time, place, or activity – check, …
- there is something challenging about it (recall the “steamed tofu” test) – check, …
- it consists of geometric abstractions based on nothing you see in the real world – triple-check!
Dear sir or madam, you are now able to tell apart seven different styles of graphic t-shirt designs, and you may print this blog post in lieu of a diploma … right after reading the following section which explains how to apply the Design Versatility Scale when things get real!
Applying the design versatility scale when decluttering or shopping
In biology, costly signaling theory predicts that a message is perceived as more valuable, if more effort has been put into creating it. People intuitively associate this high effort with high trustworthiness. As a counter example, imagine handing over all of your hard-earned money to a bank employee wearing nothing but a pair of dirty, old sweatpants as opposed to a perfectly pressed suit, and you might be even more convinced that costly signaling matters at least subconsciously. On our design versatility scale, different types of designs are ranked in terms of how generally wearable they are in a variety of situations. When we go over this scale one more time starting with “stale” designs, continuing to “obvious” ones, and then to “special occasion designs”, etc. we also notice that as design versatility increases, so does the effort to create a particular experience in people viewing the design.
If we keep this in mind, we can easily apply the design versatility scale even to design examples that we have not explicitly discussed above. Let’s use a rather harmless example here: Imagine a graphic t-shirt design that tries to be funny and merely suggests that your favorite brand, food, or pet, is no better than average, and probably even worse than average. Ironically, there is actually a 50% chance of this being true, even if we do not know anything at all about your favorite item. There is, however, a 100% chance this will at least cause you to roll your eyes, and it might even be slightly offensive to you. Since the designer did not even have to know anything about the subject, this can be considered a real cheap shot. The effort to take cheap shots is zero, and so is its social currency in terms of signaling. For this reason, the design ends up somewhere in the “stale” to “obvious” range.
Now apply this as you are out shopping or staying in to declutter your closet: If there is space in your wardrobe, keep only the in-group design t-shirts that are really important to you. If you are sentimental about certain graphic tees for special occasions, then a separate storage area other than your closet will help you decide if you really want to hang on to them. For example, consider prominently displaying them somewhere in your house! If there is very little space left in your closet, though, set the bar higher to t-shirt designs that are at least “artistic”, and on your next shopping spree, look for nonobvious designs and beyond.
In conclusion …
I hope it has been entertaining to put t-shirt designs on a rating scale, and I hope it puts a smile on your face as you start to declutter your closets and part with shirts that you haven’t worn in a while. Maybe this also gives you a few ideas for your next t-shirts, or as you are looking for gifts for your loved ones. I shamelessly included a picture of the Deconstructed Humbucker graphic tee from our store on the design versatility scale, to influence your subconsciousness and seduce you to buy it. Please check out all the other t-shirt options in our store as well.
Design matters a great deal for our t-shirt purchasing decisions, of course, but so do fabric quality, fit, and price. For this reason, in my next post, I will talk about combining the kickass designs we have learned about today with quality materials. I know that you think that I am exaggerating, when I say that reading it will help you look more fit and even more beautiful than you looked today. So, hold on to your socks and panties, connect with us on Instagram (http://instagram.com/timbreandstyle), and please send us pictures of t-shirts you find really silly, sexy, or cool.
J.Heit, Timbre & Style LLC